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What France’s new ban on short flights could signal for the future of flying

When trains are available, short-haul flights aren’t very convenient — or good for the climate

An Air France-KLM Airbus SE A319 passenger aircraft takes off from the runway at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)
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France — which has made headlines for forbidding lots of things, like outdoor heaters and smoking in forests, in an attempt to curb climate change — became the first country to ban short-haul flights this week, cutting several domestic routes that can be easily reached by train.

The law outlaws any domestic plane travel that could be accomplished by a train trip taking 2½ hours or less — a move that sounds sweeping but is modest in reality. Because the law targets only domestic flights, the final rule is expected to affect just three routes: Trips between Paris-Orly and Bordeaux, Nantes or Lyon.

The law came from France’s novel experiment in 2019 to task 150 randomly selected people with making climate policy in a “citizens’ assembly.” It proposed banning any flights that could be accomplished in less than four hours by train, but France’s legislature watered down the plan.

So the new ban will not dramatically cut France’s aviation emissions. Dan Rutherford, program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, said in an email that the law would reduce them by less than 3 percent.

But the ban could have political power. “It’s a shot across the bow of the aviation industry,” Rutherford said.

And at a larger scale — or in a bigger country — ending short-haul flights could make a real difference.

Short-haul flights have long been seen as a bit of a climate scourge. Long-haul flights — such as transatlantic trips from the United States to Europe — are carbon-intensive but also don’t have good alternatives. (Not everyone is going to be Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and travel across the Atlantic Ocean by high-speed sailboat.) And medium-haul flights, often defined as those taking three to six hours, can emit less carbon dioxide than trains covering the same distance that run on diesel.

Short-haul flights, on the other hand, damage the climate without offering much more convenience than a train ride. Airplanes burn large amounts of fuel on takeoff and when climbing to altitude, making short-haul air travel much less energy-efficient. Aviation accounts for over 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and short-haul flights — defined as covering distances less than around 930 miles — make up about one-third of that.

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Rutherford says there’s a sweet spot: For trips of less than 500 miles, replacing a flight with high-speed rail could put a dent in air travel. Flights of less than 500 miles make up about a quarter of the United States’ domestic air traffic.

Take the less than 300-mile journey between D.C. and New York City, for example. According to a study published in 2021, a single passenger taking the train round-trip instead of flying on that route will prevent between 100 and 150 kilograms of CO2 from spewing into the atmosphere — equivalent to preventing around 10 to 15 gallons of gasoline from being burned. (The train between D.C. and New York is electrified, not diesel, which helps.)

These short flights continue to shuttle back and forth. On a random weekday in June, there were well over 40 nonstop flights a day between D.C.’s two major airports and New York City’s three.

Would the United States ever ban them? It’s unlikely. Congress has shied away from taking any steps that would make climate policy seem inconvenient or burdensome for peoples’ lives, and the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped short of issuing strict regulations on aircraft emissions. And Amtrak is far from being a high-speed rail — even the Acela is only about half as fast as bullet trains in other countries.

But France’s action is a tiny step toward changing the way people think about flying. When there’s a good alternative — which takes the same amount of time and is responsible for fewer carbon emissions — why not just take the train?